Tag Archives: women in translation

Changing the status quo: the 2019 Man Booker International prize

Tonight the winner of the 2019 Man Booker International prize will be announced, and it’s something of a landmark year for women in translation. I want to talk about how 2018’s Year of Publishing Women, though it seemed to have a relatively small reach at the time, has had a significant impact on this prize: it’s possible that we’re witnessing a coincidence on a grand scale, but perhaps the fact that the shortlist features a higher proportion of women than is usual for literary prizes is a direct consequence of the Year of Publishing Women – partly owing to what was published last year, but also because of an increased awareness of the importance of striving for greater balance. The gender ratio on this year’s shortlist has made headlines everywhere, but even in neutral reports an unconscious bias is evident; in The Guardian it was described as being “dominated” by women, a phrasing quite rightly questioned by women in translation advocate Meytal Radzinski. Her point was that no shortlist with the opposite ratio would be described as being “dominated” by men – that would just be normal, right?

Image from themanbookerprize.com

Right. Except it’s so wrong that this attitude of male “domination” being normal is still prevalent. I’ve encountered several people in the past year who have said they’re unsure about whether there should be such a thing as a year of publishing only women, and so I’m just going to nail my colours to the mast and say that at this point in history YES, THERE SHOULD: women are disadvantaged at every stage of the publishing process, and this is compounded in translated literature as women face a double marginalisation. By not challenging this, we allow it to continue. Saying that we’re not gender-biased but still having catalogues or bookshelves that are heavily weighted towards male authors is, I think, quite dangerous: there may not be conscious bias, but the bias that exists at all the stages a book goes through on its journey to translation, publication and reception is allowed to continue – is even normalised – if we ignore it by believing that not being deliberately biased against women in translation is enough to tilt the balance.

So the Year of Publishing Women was brave and necessary, and opened a dialogue about the books that get published and those that don’t. In an interview last year, publicist Nicky Smalley told me that And Other Stories (the only publishing house to commit fully to the Year of Publishing Women) had to actively seek out books by women writers to fill the 2018 catalogue; one of those books, Alia Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel The Remainder, is now on the Man Booker International shortlist. The Remainder is a spirited dual narrative in which three young people shackled to the historical memory of the Chilean dictatorship drive a hearse through the mountains from Chile to Argentina in search of a corpse lost in transit, and was beautifully translated by Sophie Hughes for And Other Stories. Its well-deserved place on the shortlist represents activism at its best, and it is not the only success of the Year of Publishing Women: the more women are published, the more they will be discussed, reviewed and entered for prizes, and the more these lists might see a more lasting shift where people are no longer surprised to see the scales tipped towards a preponderance of women writers. Where this is no longer “unprecedented”, no longer a surprising “domination”, but something perfectly normal – just as it will continue be perfectly normal for the ratio to favour men on other occasions. Neither scenario should be surprising, and yet one of them is.

The 2019 Man Booker International shortlist also smashes tired stereotypes of what women write about: women’s writing is too often pigeonholed as “romance”, “chick lit” or “women’s fiction”, and it is assumed and accepted that women write for women (an attitude brilliantly challenged by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett) – these kinds of facile assumptions are exactly what perpetuate the invisible bias that women writers have to confront every time they sit down to write. And yet the women-authored books on the Man Booker International shortlist are extremely diverse: as well as Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel, there is the second English-language publication of last year’s winner, Olga Tokarczuk: the magnificent Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a witty and poignant pseudo-noir murder mystery flawlessly translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions. The difference in genre and voice from Flights (Tokarczuk’s 2018 prizewinner, translated by Jennifer Croft for Fitzcarraldo Editions), along with the sheer scope of her work, shows that we cannot pigeonhole Tokarczuk (and, with her, Polish literature or women’s writing). And the excellent, ambitious books are not limited to The Remainder and Drive Your Plow (though they are my two unequivocal favourites on the shortlist): in Celestial Bodies Jokha Alharthi tells the history of Oman through the women of one fictional family, translated by Marilyn Booth for Sandstone Press; Annie Ernaux’s The Years is a “collective autobiography” of twentieth-century French cultural history, translated by Alison L. Strayer for Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands, an excoriating account of one man’s self-indulgent journey of enlightenment, finds new audiences in Jen Calleja’s sardonic translation for Serpent’s Tail.

Women represent half of history, half of the world, half of life – let them fill half your bookshelf, and then we won’t need a Year of Publishing Women or see women’s success framed in terms of anomalous “domination”. I’ve mentioned the scales tipping, the balance shifting, the ratios changing: the theme for International Women’s Day this year was “Balance for Better”, and I believe that the Year of Publishing Women has done exactly that. Shamsie noted that the real point of interest would be what happened in 2019:

“Will we revert to the status quo or will a year of a radically transformed publishing landscape change our expectations of what is normal and our preconceptions of what is unchangeable?”

2018 may not quite have been the “radically transformed publishing landscape” that Shamsie had hoped for, but the Year of Publishing Women did shake up expectations, complacencies, and resignation about the “unchangeability” of gender bias. The 2019 Man Booker International shortlist is testament to that, and as both gatekeepers and readers we need to carry on balancing for better so that the legacy of the Year of Publishing Women is not limited to one year, but carries on challenging the status quo until the status quo itself is changed.

Stories of intimacy and alienation: Rania Mamoun, Thirteen Months of Sunrise

Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Comma Press, 2019)

It’s no secret that I’ve been excited about Thirteen Months of Sunrise, the first major translation into English of a Sudanese woman writer. Rania Mamoun’s writing has a cultural specificity that offered me a window into a culture I know shamefully little about, but the themes in her short stories are universal: the collection is urgent, thoughtful, and occasionally surreal, reflecting on themes ranging from love, contingency, and broken promises to despair, religion, alienation and corruption. I don’t believe that authors should be yoked to a moral imperative of having to “represent” or “speak for” their country or culture in their writing, and though Thirteen Months of Sunrise is described in the press release as “a rich, complex and moving portrait of contemporary Sudan”, it is also a rich, complex and moving portrait of humanity. Indeed, there is so much in here that pushes us to rethink lazy neo-colonial stereotypes: for example, although ‘In the Muck of the Soul’ presents a woman whose poverty and fate might seem to conform to clichéd expectations, the story is presented as though through a video camera, a pseudo-documentary that gently reminds us that what we think we know about Sudan is nonetheless always edited: “Tears tumble from her eyes. The camera pans down to a fallen tear, the focus sharpens and it fills the screen.”

Image from commapress.co.uk

The translation by Elisabeth Jaquette is very accomplished; Jaquette also translated another book I enjoyed recently (The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, a Kafka-esque nightmare set in Egypt), and so I already knew that she was an excellent translator. She brings the same sensitivity to Thirteen Months of Sunrise, and there are echoes of the bureaucracy that haunts The Queue in ‘In the Muck of the Soul’. But Mamoun is also playful, and Jaquette communicates that equally well: Mamoun shows a wicked sense of humour in ‘Stray Steps’, with pithy comments about family relationships that made me laugh out loud (“What was the point of going home, where there was nothing but tap water and my mother, who I only like sometimes when I have all my wits about me, and she only half her wits, maybe even a quarter. They disappear and reappear at random, only she knows when they’ll be there or not.”/ “My uncle works as a driver for a taxi company, but he also has a job as a first class drunk, so what he does with his salary won’t help me.”) ‘Stray Steps’ brings together the tragic and the humorous, the real and the imagined that co-exist in Mamoun’s stories, leading us to a surreal conclusion but always foregrounding the most recognisable of human emotions.

In the short stories we meet women struggling to support their families, people cast out to the margins by love, by society or by illness, and relationships in many different forms. The bonds Mamoun explores range from desire, friendship, sexual attraction and family love to connections rooted in a place, a history, or a shared sense of belonging, as in the relationship between a Sudanese woman and an Ethiopian man in the title story (incidentally, I shan’t spoil the meaning of the title by telling you what the ‘Thirteen Months of Sunrise’ refers to; you can save that enjoyment for your own reading!):

“He found in me someone who understood him, and I found in him a window into Ethiopia, and oh how I loved it. […] The Blue Nile, which passes through Khartoum, originates at Lake Tana in Ethiopia. That’s what makes our bond so strong, I thought: we were nursed from the same source.”

The Blue Nile is also beautifully depicted on the cover of the book, highlighting the importance of origins to this collection; there may be no obligation for Mamoun to educate us about contemporary Sudan, but this does not mean that her stories lack roots. The two I enjoyed most were a painful one about poverty, and a passionate one about love. In ‘One-room Sorrows’, a mother cannot feed her children, and we see her misery in the face of their hunger: “‘Mama, me hungry,’ says the little boy of four, begging his mother. She looks at him, her heart so torn to shreds by hunger, sadness, pain and defeat.” You might think that this is the clichéd representation of Sudan I was trying to step away from earlier, but it’s so much more than a reductive view of poverty – it is a tale of relationships and responsibilities and survival, and ends with a line that takes a social problem and shows its most personal side: “‘Mum, are you gonna eat us when you get hungry?’ asks the boy of four, and she smiles, tells him no, hugs him, and sadly considers his need to ask.”

These intimate portrayals of people at the edges of life, society and reason are where Mamoun excels: my other favourite story, ‘Edges’, exposes passion and desire, and plays with madness. The narrator describes waiting for love in an intensely poetic way: “I had waited for him so many years. For him to come mend my cracks and fissures. He came to dismantle, disperse, and then assemble me, to rearrange my parts and pieces, to shape me anew.” The protagonist is, however, deemed to be mad, her all-consuming passions considered a negative loss of control of the senses. But Mamoun reclaims these passions, casting in a positive light the memories of a great love that is both rooted in a time and place and collectively human:

“I remember the evening the damp sandbar lay between us and the Blue Nile, when he reached out and said, ‘Give me your hand.’
I lived a lifetime in the space and time between when I lifted my hand – it moved through the air, reached its apex, began its descent – and when it settled in his palm. I experienced a whole lifetime, parallel to my own, in those moments.”

Mamoun writes with a sparse clarity, eschewing melodrama: if her narrator here lives a lifetime in a moment, so Mamoun herself writes a life in just a few pages. She displays great gentleness towards her characters – the diabetic woman dragging herself along the road and encountering an unlikely saviour, the woman on a bus who feels a wave of compassion towards a pair of flies, the beggar woman who sits at the foot of the mosque’s east wall, “a black mass gathered in the dark”, who even the dogs were afraid of – and offers a rich fresco of life that is at once deeply embedded in her culture and universally recognisable.

Review copy of 13 Months of Sunrise provided by Comma Press. Released in the UK on 9 May 2019; available to pre-order here.

For more by Rania Mamoun, read The Book of Khartoum or Banthology, both also published by Comma Press.

Intimate encounters in historical turbulence: Anne Richter, Distant Signs

Translated from the German by Douglas Irving (Neem Tree Press, 2019)

Neem Tree Press is a new UK-based independent publisher, and I was fortunate to receive a review copy of their latest release, Distant Signs. In this intimate depiction of three generations of a German family in the twentieth century, different family members live through the Second World War, the German Democratic Republic and the fall of the Berlin Wall; each generation longs for a happy life, but this common goal is compromised by historical restrictions and family misunderstandings. A family tree is provided by way of a preface to the book, and the first two people we meet are the middle generation, Margret and Hans. Margret is the daughter of a university professor, Hans a future biology student from a provincial town, and they meet and fall in love during an agricultural placement in the 1960s. Yet, instead of a fresh start free from the shackles of their complex relationships with their own parents, they soon fall into patterns of behaviour that perpetuate the very coldness (in Margret’s case) and anxieties (in Hans’s) that they suffered from as they were growing up.

Though the major historical events are notably absent (for example, the narrative vignettes skip from 1988 to 1992), this does not mean to say that history does not feature – it dominates the characters’ lives, whether through Margret’s father Friedrich’s attitude that “in our times, private matters must come second to societal”, Hans being told at a party leadership meeting that he must break off relations with his best friend, or Hans and Margret’s daughter Sonja attending an illicit Christian youth group that results in her school grades being lowered as punishment for her transgression. At all times, the personal portraits are underscored by a history that is never intrusive but is ever present: to describe Distant Signs as understated would itself be an understatement, but this adds to the appeal of the book. The most harrowing events are imparted in single sentences, such as when Tante Anna has been trying to dig a grave for her thirteen-year-old daughter, fatally wounded at the airfield that they were all made to build:

“Around lunchtime Tante Anna came up to us. She looked very pale and told us she was going to look for a bigger shovel, that the grave was still too narrow. The following day the neighbour rang our door and begged me to untie the rope from her attic ceiling.”

It was at this section that the story truly became alive for me, when I could get past a few awkward renderings in the translation and engage with the lives of the protagonists and their families. I found the most moving part about the inter-generational narrative approach to be the way in which each member of the family keeps silent, guarding the pain of their own memories. This is, perhaps, the legacy of living under a system where expressing thoughts that diverged from official state policy or that put personal needs before the good of the state could have dire consequences. But the silence transmitted between the generations is devastating, condemning them to repeat their parents’ mistakes and never to understand one another; take, for example, this section involving Margret’s daughter (Sonja) and her mother (Johanna):

“While a gentle clatter emanated from the kitchen, Sonja drew nearer to Johanna. ‘Mummy’s sick. Yesterday morning she lay in bed, cried and said she didn’t want to see anyone. She asked me to call school. Daddy was shouting at her again.’
Annoyed, Johanna waved dismissively. ‘Think of all we’ve come through.’
Sonja stared at her, as though trying to fathom the hidden meaning of her grandmother’s words. This look of Sonja did Johanna good, and she wondered whether she should tell the girl about herself. Then Lene pushed open the living room door with her foot.”

I’ll get the gripe out of the way first: “this look of Sonja”. Leaving the ambiguous preposition aside, there is so much beauty and pain in this passage: we learn of Margret’s inability to cope with life in the child’s view that “Mummy’s sick”, of her increasingly strained relationship with Hans (“Daddy was shouting at her again”), but more than anything, we see how Johanna, who lived through the war and kept three children alive only for them to complain that their relationships were imperfect, dismisses these concerns with a terse “think of all we’ve come through”. We have weathered far worse, she implies, and this is self-indulgent. That a mother cannot feel empathy for her daughter, trapped in an unhappy marriage, because there are worse things exemplifies everything I admired about this book – its strength is in the subtle way it exposes each character’s inability to truly understand the others. The moment when Johanna teeters on the brink of her own silence, impelled to open up and create an intimacy with her granddaughter, is also symbolic: Lene (Hans’s mother) enters the room, and the silence of the older generation closes up again.

The translation did, in some places, let down the story. There were some odd expressions, ranging from the overly literary/ archaic (a jacket being “redolent” of pipe tobacco, the inversion of “I cared not”) or unnatural syntax (“the basin where lay greenish coins”) to a repeated use of “thought to” rather than “thought + subject” (e.g. “Hans thought to detect a musty smell as he contemplated them”). Nonetheless, Irving has clearly tried to give each character a distinctive voice, which I very much welcomed as, alongside the family tree provided at the front and the running header reminding us of the year, this made sure that I always knew who was talking and what the implication was for a person of that age in that particular decade.

Though each generation seems condemned to repeat the mistakes of the previous one, the hope for the future lies with a teenage Sonja. Margret realises that though times may change, basic desires might provide common ground:

“It was the first time that Margret had studied Sonja’s wall, and suddenly she understood that her daughter dreamed of nothing other than what Margret had longed for once: an unconditional love and a fairer world; and yet, for Sonja, these wishes had other colours and forms to those they had had for Margret.”

Taking herself out of a historical time, Margret tries to connect with her daughter through a shared sense of idealism and new beginnings. The narrative ends with Sonja’s new life – I shan’t give any spoilers, but it is an appropriate opening towards modernity while avoiding potentially trite reconciliations that would be at odds with the overarching theme of failed communication. Distant Signs is a different take on a much-written-about period of history: it was unexpected, delicate, and extremely memorable.

Review copy of Distant Signs provided by Neem Tree Press

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan: author Yan Ge and translator Nicky Harman debate their novel and its anti-hero

Following on from last week’s review of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (Balestier Press, 2018), I’m delighted to bring you this exclusive interview with author Yan Ge by translator Nicky Harman.

Set in a fictional town in West China, this is the story of the Duan-Xue family, owners of the lucrative chilli bean paste factory, and their formidable matriarch. As Gran’s eightieth birthday approaches, her middle-aged children get together to make preparations. Family secrets are revealed and long-time sibling rivalries flare up with renewed vigour. As her son Shengqiang (Dad) struggles unsuccessfully to juggle the demands of his mistress, his mother and his wife, the biggest surprises of all come from Gran herself…

Yan Ge and Nicky Harman, images from the authors

NH: I was introduced to your writing by Ou Ning, founder and editor of the influential Chinese-English avant-garde literary magazine, Chutzpah. At that time, 2011, you had submitted chapters 1 and 2 of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan to him, under the title ‘Dad’s Not Dead’, and I translated them. I was immediately impressed by the fresh, direct way you depicted these squabbling, middle-aged siblings and the foul-mouthed philandering Dad, a small-town businessman, who is its (anti)hero. The novel is very different from any of your previous writing, which is both more literary and has more fantasy elements. You’ve written that this shift of style and topic was a deliberate decision on your part and you’ve written very amusingly about your struggles:

‘It took me so long to find the voice of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, or the voice of Xue Shengqiang (Dad), because it was by no means my natural voice. … I wrote and rewrote the first chapter so many times and none of these worked. …So one day, in Durham (USA), I was on my way back home from the campus and I passed a petrol station. And there came my epiphany! I went in and purchased a pack of cigarettes (White Marlboro, I will never forget). With that I went back home, sat by my table, clumsily lit a cigarette and started to imagine Xue Shengqiang’s life. And that was when it came to me that he cursed a lot. So I wrote another version of the beginning of the story with a cigarette dangling between my lips and tears in my eyes (from the smoke). But it worked. It was his voice and I was very happy. So I actually smoked a lot when I was working on The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. Chain-smoking in the middle of the night. Typing and cursing along with Xue Shengqiang. Sure enough, after I finished the book I returned to being a non-smoker.’

You once said that when you re-read your novel a year or so later, you realised how angry you were when you wrote it. Can you say a bit more about that?

YG: I started writing the Chilli Bean Paste Clan when I was 26 and I had published several books. As a young woman, I struggled to survive in an industry that was more or less dominated by middle-aged men and I was constantly cringing at their behaviour. I suppose a lot of things I saw or experienced made me unsettled and in a sense, disorientated. And to write The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, especially to write it in a different country, was my way of ‘writing up’ or ‘writing back’ to the patriarchal world that I couldn’t really stomach. On the other hand, I was very conscious that a work of fiction should be a neutral ground and the writer’s personal feelings should not dominate the narrative. So one of the principles for the novel was that I should withdraw myself, in particular, my identity as a young woman. But I suppose I can’t really erase myself and my personal emotions, especially they are the things that propelled me to write this novel. So years later, when I reread it, I saw this very angry young woman behind the novel, and her muted anger permeates through the pages. It was both surprising and heartening.

NH: One thing I found most difficult to grasp as I translated the novel was the undercurrents in the relationships between the main family members: Dad and Gran, Mum and Gran (her mother-in-law), and Dad and his brother in particular. To put it simply, I failed to pick up on some of the hidden hostility. Some examples: In the first chapter, Mum and Dad are interrupted in bed by a phone call from Gran. Mum asks Dad: ‘你妈打电话来又什么事?’ My original version was a neutral: ‘What’s your mother on about now?’ You pointed out to me that she’s being deliberately offensive about the mother-in-law she detests, by referring to her as ‘your mother’ instead of ‘Mother’. (In the traditional Chinese family, the woman becomes part of her husband’s family, so his mother is her mother too.) After we talked about this, my translation became ‘What’s up with that mother of yours now?’

At the beginning of chapter 2, Dad is enjoying a few leisurely moments with a cigarette. His thoughts wander and we read that ‘他忍不住就要开始奶奶死了的事了’, literally, he can’t help thinking of Gran’s death. can be ‘want ‘ as well as ‘think’ but I simply couldn’t believe that he really wanted his mother to die so I glossed ‘think’ into the noun ‘anxieties’ (about her death). One of Dad’s redeeming features is that he’s actually a properly dutiful son and he doesn’t acknowledge his deeply-buried hostility to anyone, even himself, so it seemed logical to assume that his thoughts were anxious. However, after you and I discussed Dad’s conflicted attitude to his mother, I changed ‘think/thoughts’ to the more ambivalent ‘daydreams’. I think there’s something that’s culturally very Chinese about this subtlety of language. Do you agree?

YG: Yes I do. I remembered when I first left China and lived in the US, I found people shockingly straightforward and it really took me quite some time to adjust. In general I think Chinese language is more abstract compared with English, and this allows a fluidity in both the langue and the culture. To be obscure is almost a virtue in China. Especially in this case, in the love/hate relationship with his mother, Shengqiang (Dad) cannot say what he really feels and he cannot even admit it to himself.

NH: There have been quite different reactions to The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, centring on a certain moral ambivalence in the story. Some readers can forgive Dad for being a profligate womanizer, others can’t. For Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing Book Reviews, Kate Costello writes: ‘Yan Ge’s endearing if not entirely sympathetic characters grab you from the first page. Shengqiang (Dad) is delightfully dysfunctional from the very moment we lay eyes on him. He is a rare literary figure that manages to tear at our heartstrings even while we look down on his reprehensible behaviour and laugh at his vanity.’ While Amy Mathewson says: ‘…in this era of Trump and the #MeToo campaign, I found it difficult to laugh away the misadventures and foibles of Shengqiang. There is much awareness of the long-term effects of sexual harassment that has been highlighted recently and the treatment of the young hostesses by the older men during the drinking engagements made me cringe…’  Did you deliberately sit on the fence and avoid moral condemnation?

YG: Absolutely. I don’t think a good fiction writer should judge any of her characters. But at the same time I feel my stand was very clear. I remember we had a discussion when you were translating a particular scene (Dad going to a night club), and I expressed to you that the idea was to make the scene extreme and Dad’s behaviour revolting – and that was where I stand. I did not write the scene for the reader to appreciate or enjoy, I wrote it this way so the reader would be disgusted and see the absurdity in him and his world.

NH: You and I have talked and blogged quite a lot elsewhere about the challenges of translating Dad’s colourful obscenities, but here I’d like to say something about a different sort of challenge: how to translate the author’s hints without either giving the game away, or making the English so obscure that the reader is left bamboozled. Our novel is full of family secrets, hinted at throughout but only revealed at the end. We the readers have to guess what these secrets are, just as the protagonists in the story do. In the words of another translator, Natascha Bruce, ‘…the translator, somehow, has to be orientated enough not to spin things in ways [the author] doesn’t intend, and to notice the clues she’s laid for piecing things together.’ A key part of the denouement in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan are the commemorative couplets unveiled at Gran’s 80th birthday party, in which the calligrapher blows the whistle on Gran’s past life.

Here is the second line of the couplet in Chinese:

春娟百载,姜桂庭中迎灵龟。
May Spring Grace enjoy a hundred years, may the fragrant hall welcome the clever turtle.

Spring Grace is the name of the factory, and alludes to the personal name of its owner, Gran: 英娟, Brave Grace. The turtle is a common symbol of longevity in China, but in the famous erotic novel Plum in the Golden Vase, the clever turtle灵龟 refers to the hero’s penis, and the hinted-at appendage is getting a warm welcome! The allusion to one of China’s most famous classic novels defeated me and I omitted it on the grounds that it wouldn’t be recognisable to an English-language reader.

The lines are a sly reference to a secret from Gran’s past and they are intentionally obscure (the guests don’t understand the allusion, though Gran does and is mortified). They contain classical allusions and, dammit, the couplet has to rhyme! The challenge was to produce a rhyming couplet that hinted without telling. I ended up in English with this translation:

Long life to our distinguished Madame May
As we celebrate her eightieth birthday
Long life to the Mayflower Factory,
Where the fragrant vats embrace the stalk of longevity.

Wherein, in order to achieve a rhyme I was happy with, not just Gran but also the factory acquired completely different names. Having arrived at my translation of these four lines in the final pages (after an interesting discussion with you), I then had to go back to the beginning of the novel and re-name both the factory (making it the Mayflower Factory) and its owner (making her May and adding Madame in front for good measure).

One final question, you wrote this story, was it, eight years ago? Would you write it differently now? For example, because the cultural climate in Sichuan towns or in China has changed? Or because you feel differently as a writer and as a woman?

YG: Yes, it was eight years ago. (Where has the time gone?) Of course it’ll be very different if I write it now. For instance, I’ll not be that angry or maybe even angrier – who knows? The world I see is still puzzling and unsettling to me, and that is why I have to keep writing.

International Women’s Day: some thoughts on Women in Translation

I remember the first time I celebrated International Women’s Day: I was an earnest PhD student, my feminist sensibilities just awakening, and I went to a screening of a film about female ejaculation. Squirming in my seat, I didn’t feel like much of a feminist. Almost twenty years later, I’m far more confident about what feminism means to me, and it’s pretty simple: it means equality. Not being the same, not being better – just being equal.

But simplicity is rarely straightforward. Inequality is so ingrained in our society that it sometimes feels insurmountable, because it’s in every interaction, from the gender pay gap to the knowing eyeroll that follows the most fleeting mention of the words “feminist” or “patriarchy”. I dream of a day when we don’t have to talk about “feminism” or “patriarchy” because we’ll simply be talking about “equality” and “society”, and I dream of a day when we don’t have to talk about “women’s writing”, because it will just be “literature”.

So I have a dream…

… that one day “women” will not be a subcategory to anything. The simple fact of having to talk about “women’s writing” or even “women in translation” makes them seem somehow a subcategory of “real” writing and “real” translation. For now, we need the terms “women’s writing” and “women in translation”, because otherwise we are not challenging dominant discourses that silence pressing debates about gender parity. By using these terms, we are reminded – and we remind gatekeepers – that we still need to work actively towards equality.

One such example of activism was the commitment that independent publishing (power)house And Other Stories made to the Year of Publishing Women, which I discussed with their publicist Nicky Smalley here: in seeking out women authors, And Other Stories not only contributed to diversity in publishing, but also brought excellent literature to English-language readers that otherwise might not have made it through. I believe this commitment was a model for real change: we can’t assume that women’s voices will be heard if we do not actively make it possible, and so if we want equality then we have a responsibility to do so – whether as publishers, as booksellers, or as readers (and if you’d like some inspiration of what to read next, my virtual bookshelf has dozens of one-line reviews of women’s writing in translation).

English-language publishers who champion literature in translation are doing something radical and necessary; those who actively seek out women in translation are doing something revolutionary. Think Tilted Axis Press and their Translating Feminisms project, Comma Press publishing the first major translated collection of a Sudanese woman writer, Les Fugitives and their mission to bring French women’s writing to English-language readers, Parthian Books and their Europa Carnivale series. As Margaret Carson, co-founder of the Women in Translation tumblr (and keynote speaker at our forthcoming Translating Women conference), recently wrote for In Other Words, “remaining unknown is the greatest barrier […] There is no lack of women writers in any literary culture: the question is how to find them.” The answer might be by supporting these small but mighty publishing houses.

Translation, like feminism, is a form of activism, its very etymology a movement. And movements are about… moving. Moving across borders, moving away from stereotypes, and moving towards a common goal. Just as women’s writing is dependent on gatekeepers letting it through, so women’s rights are dependent on our voices being heard. So no more eyerolls at the mention of the f-word, and no more apologies: feminism is for everyone. We all need it, and we all benefit from it, just as we all benefit from translation, which opens our eyes to worlds beyond borders both literal and figurative. Feminism and translation both build bridges, foster inclusivity, and create connections instead of barriers. By supporting women’s voices in translation, we are coming one step closer to the equality that my unapologetically feminist heart longs for.

 

Haunting and hypnotic short stories: Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds

Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (OneWorld, forthcoming February 2019)

Acclaimed Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin returns with this eerie collection of short stories brimming with murdered wives, abandoned brides, abject bodies, lost children, and evil spirits. Schweblin has perfected the art of writing on the fine line between reality and nightmare: by the end of each story, the comfortably recognisable world which has initially been shown to us has shifted towards something altogether more terrifying.

Image from oneworld-publications.com

Schweblin first came to English-language readers’ attention with her novella Fever Dream, also translated by Megan McDowell and also published by OneWorld: it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, and is currently in production to be turned into a Netflix series. I loved Fever Dream, and not because I like horror stories (quite the opposite, in fact), but because I couldn’t put it down once I’d started. Like Fever Dream, Mouthful of Birds is hypnotically compelling: though each story is self-contained, I often found myself automatically carrying on to the next story even if I hadn’t planned to do so. The stories are well organised and form a coherent collection, broaching topics including environmental damage, ephemerality and mortality, private sorrows hidden behind projections of success or normality, infertility and mindless reproduction, the horrific things humans do because they are rejected for being different, and some wry observations about modern art and the patriarchy.

Schweblin’s talent is, for me, twofold: firstly, she is gifted at presenting a seemingly ordinary story, set in a tangible, recognisable world, and deftly slipping from the familiar to the unthinkable. Secondly, and this is possibly even more apparent in the short stories of Mouthful of Birds than in Fever Dream, she manages to combine complexity and concision in a quite remarkable way (consider, for example, this opening to the final story: “He returns to the room carrying a suitcase. Durable, lined in brown leather, it stands on four wheels and offers up its handle elegantly at knee level. He doesn’t regret his actions. He thinks that the stabbing of his wife had been fair, but he also knows that few people would understand his reasons.”) Megan McDowell does a superb job of translating Schweblin, gleefully communicating the sense of foreboding in the slightly-not-normal.

The collection opens with the magnificent “Headlights”, in which fields whispering with ghostly crowds turn out to be a bevy of jilted brides emerging from the darkness around the highway where the protagonist has been abandoned in her wedding dress after taking too long in the roadside facilities. I’m not going to spoil the ending here; I’ll just say it’s unexpected and brilliant. The title story, “Mouthful of Birds”, is an excellent example of how the familiar becomes suddenly threatening: a father, irritated by his ex-wife’s insistence that he take more of a responsibility for their daughter, goes to see her and finds her uncharacteristically serene and healthy. So far, so normal. But then a birdcage is unveiled, and the daughter gorges herself on its (living) occupant before turning round to bestow a bloody smile on her horrified father.

Many of the stories take place in liminal or desolate spaces: the highway, the countryside, an empty diner, a deserted railway station, on the way somewhere but never quite arriving, and these border places add to the sense of uncertainty. There are dead wives (one lying on the kitchen floor of a roadside restaurant, one stuffed ignominiously into a suitcase), lost children (an almond-sized foetus preserved for a future gestation, the sudden disappearance of a group of children obsessed with digging, a longed-for childlike being who is never seen, but seems to be a savage evil spirit), mild-mannered psychopaths and vengeful creatures, and nothing is ever quite what it seems. Turning points abound; “They lost their children that night” is the laconic pivotal moment of a story told over a rural beer counter, and when a man fails a gruesome rite of passage, the simple phrase “you hesitated” seals his fate, the ensuing horror left to our imagination. There is a dreamlike quality to Schweblin’s work that contrasts well with her tightly-structured tales; an unknown that pushes us towards a conclusion that, once reached, seems as though it was always inevitable, and which (whether we want to or not) we finish for ourselves.

My mention of dreams and nightmares are not arbitrary: they are referenced in the collection both explicitly (when a man believes that he has killed his wife and keeps waking up in his doctor’s house, wondering whether he dreamed the sequence of events) and implicitly (another character is trapped in a remote train station because he does not have the exact fare to continue his journey, and ends up being subsumed into life in the railway station). If there is something unsettling about Mouthful of Birds it is surely because, though Schweblin’s work has been described as “Gothic” or “magic realism”, the real horror comes from situations much closer to reality than we might like to think. In a recent interview, Schweblin commented on this aspect of her work, saying: “I love that it’s described as fantasy, because I’d like to think that’s a reflection of the impact it has on the reader: just the idea that something like that might happen to you makes you want to stick that world in the realm of fantasy.” The power of these stories lies in the way that they confront us with recognisable situations and turn them into a place we wish to avoid.

I suspect that Schweblin’s star will continue to rise, and if you’re not already familiar with her work, Mouthful of Birds is a good introduction. I do prefer Fever Dream – though this may be partly a question of genre, as short stories aren’t my favourite form – but If you’ve already read and enjoyed Fever Dream then you shouldn’t be disappointed. Addictive and imaginative,  Mouthful of Birds offers well-crafted stories of isolation and disintegration.

Review copy provided by Oneworld Publications.

The dark side of the planetary brain, or how a sacred anemone saves the world: Rita Indiana, Tentacle

Translated from the Spanish by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories, 2018)

Tentacle was the final book released by And Other Stories in the Year of Publishing Women, and it smashed all of my expectations: a psychedelic voodoo Caribbean Genesis story collides with science fiction and eco-criticism in a furious explosion of colour and poetry, presided over by a sacred anemone. If you want to put a label on it, then Tentacle is probably best described as “experimental fiction”, but this doesn’t even begin to do it justice: it is both historical and contemporary, spiritual and pragmatic, science fiction and art – in short, as uncategorizable as it is exceptional.

Image taken from www.andotherstories.org

In a dystopian mid 21st-century Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life. We are in a time of advanced technology, when headsets function as a virtual-reality version of the internet, and yet humanity has regressed to some of its basest impulses; a modern-day plague is sweeping across the Caribbean, and affluent members of society are brutal in protecting themselves from contamination: “Recognizing the virus in the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbours, who will now avoid the building’s entrance until the automatic collectors patrolling the streets and avenues pick up the body and disintegrate it.” In this post-apocalyptic world where the plague-ridden poor are simply a nuisance for the rich to exterminate, we meet Acilde, androgynous maid to famous psychic Esther Escudero. Picking her way through the pollution and social inequality, Acilde has been plucked from a life of “suck[ing] dicks at El Mirador” because the anemone had foretold that she would be the one to save the world; Acilde thus inadvertently holds the key to future survival, and is part of a prophecy that must be fulfilled. In order to realise her destiny she must become a man, by way of a futuristic sex change far removed from any modern-day medical procedure (carried out with the help of the aforementioned sacred anemone, a contraband artefact protected by Escudero’s henchman), and then travel in time to save her home. Past, present and future lives bleed into one another as characters from the future experience past lives as 16th-century buccaneers or 20th-century artists: time, history, and legacy are simultaneously distorted and clarified, and the protagonists tormented and consoled, by the power of the anemone.

Writing from the near future allows Indiana to make a social comment that never seems moralistic, and which is all the more persuasive for being framed as retrospective. The abandonment of the plague sufferers is reminiscent of current dialogues about refugees and borders, as well as a desensitization towards tragedy that Indiana adroitly reminds us is, in itself, a modern “plague.” The recent past is neatly condensed by the description of Acilde’s room in Esther Escudero’s house as “one of those typical rooms found in Santo Domingo’s twentieth-century apartments, from when everybody had a servant who lived with them and, for a salary well below minimum wage, cleaned, cooked, washed, watched the kids, and attended to the clandestine sexual requirements of the man of the house,” and the Trujillo regime (though unnamed) is described from the future as one that “the foreign press – still – did not dare call a dictatorship.” This didactic comment does not feel forced, as it is all in the context of an environmental disaster that has not (or not yet) happened in real life (there are early references to “the day of the tidal wave” that wiped out half the population). Yet though this may seem futuristic, in a recent interview Indiana stated that this future Caribbean where capitalism and colonialism have brought on humanitarian crises “exists in the present,” and that in viewing it from the future, she offers her readers a “‘safe’ place from which to view them” – and it is undoubtedly one of Tentacle’s great accomplishments that concealed in its futuristic, fictional context is a very contemporary, very real message.

There were ways in which the crux of the story reminded me of Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve, but that is not to say that there is anything derivative about Tentacle. Indiana produces a written text with oral qualities, meticulously and thoughtfully constructed but managing to seem effortlessly spontaneous. She draws together religion and voodoo, and reflects the culture of her country while defying tradition: Indiana’s influences and intertexts are multiple and eclectic, as are the possible readings of Tentacle. For all its riotous science-fiction qualities, Tentacle offers a number of social critiques, such as this one on race: “‘Black,’ he heard himself say as he breathed smoke out of his mouth. A small word swollen over time by other meanings, all of them hateful. Every time somebody said it to mean poor, dirty, inferior or criminal, the word grew; it must have been about to burst, and when it finally did, it would once again mean what it meant in the beginning: a color.” It is with reflections like this that Indiana weaves a narrative that is both deeply rooted in the traditions of her country and universally recognisable, and the translation by Achy Obejas – at once lyrical and volatile, evocative and explosive – communicates all the wisdom, energy, and artistic range of Indiana’s work.

The final page – which I’m not going to quote from, or talk about in too much detail, as I want you to enjoy it for yourself if you’re going to read Tentacle – is, in comparison to the rest of the book, quiet, tender, and calm. This is no paradox or accident – Indiana concludes her whirlwind of a story with the quiet at the eye of the storm, as all the worlds, bodies and times collapse in on one another and end together; it is a final page I have read over and over. Tentacle is explosive, innovative, steeped in history but defying tradition, unless it is the tradition that “In the Caribbean we live on the dark side of the planetary brain.” This is an urgent, electric novel, and I highly recommend that you try stepping over to this particular “dark side.”

 

Women in translation 2019: reflections and resolutions

I always make new year’s resolutions. Not in a “go to the gym, learn a new skill, tick something off the bucket list” kind of way, but small, attainable goals that I can stick to. This time last year, my resolution was to read more: I always used to have a book on the go, but the combination of having less free time and more access to instant short reads meant that I reached the end of 2017 feeling I had got out of the habit of reading. So in January last year, my husband bought me a copy of The Vegetarian and a subscription to Tilted Axis Press; if you’ve read around this site, you’ll know that’s how the Translating Women project began.

My 2018 in books

My reading in 2018 was directed in several different ways: browsing the catalogues of  publishing houses I’d identified as relevant to the project, recommendations on Twitter, books sent to me for review, impulsive trips to bookstores, and gifts from people who knew about the project. Because there was no particular order to my reading, I compiled a geomap to see where I’d been reading from (the darker the shade of red, the greater the quantity of books I read from that country):

So this is how my reading – and my new year’s resolution – panned out in 2018. This map represents the 59 books I read by women in translation last year, and the geographical coverage is reasonably broad: though it’s easy to see that I read one text each from Russia and Canada because of the scale of the territory, it’s also worth pointing out that there are other comparatively small geographical areas such as the Dominican Republic, Iran, Albania and Lebanon which also make their way on there with one book each. Scandinavia was quite well represented, with Norway, Sweden and Denmark all making an appearance, and Eastern Europe didn’t fare too badly either. The gaping hole is, perhaps unsurprisingly, over Africa: apart from one book from Egypt, there was nothing in my year’s reading from Africa. There are many cultural and linguistic reasons which could account for this, but since part of my interest lies in translator studies (the focus on the translator as agent), I wonder whether what is available in translation might be determined in part by the number of translators working out of a given language? Perhaps the source languages that made up my 2018 women in translation reading might offer an indication of what is most readily available:

You can see from this pie chart that the dominant language in my women in translation reading last year was Spanish (20.3% of my reading, or 12 of 59 books), though it is interesting to note that all but two of these came from Latin America. This is in part down to Charco Press, who focus on publishing English translations of works from that particular geographical area (I read four from Charco, but also four from And Other Stories – all published as part of the Year of Publishing Women – and two from Oneworld). Of the six books I read from peninsular Spain, two were originally written in Spanish, two in Basque and two in Catalan – an even distribution that does not reflect proportionally what is published in Spain itself (for further breakdown: both Spanish language books were published by Harvill Secker, both Basque books by Parthian Press, and one Catalan book each from And Other Stories and Peirene Press – if I’m to draw a rudimentary conclusion from this, it would be the suggestion that the small independent publishing houses are championing what have been defined elsewhere as “smaller literatures”). French came second with 13.6% (six books from Metropolitan France, and one each from Canada and Lebanon, published by a range of publishers but boosted by Les Fugitives, who only publish translations of women writers from French), and then German, Japanese and Korean tied for third place with 8.5% (representing five books). Three of the five German books in translation were published by Portobello Books, as were three of the five Japanese books in translation (with another published by Portobello’s parent Granta Books), and the five translations from Korean were accounted for primarily by the efforts of Deborah Smith (translating Han Kang for Portobello Books and publishing Hwang Jungeun and Han Yujoo in the publishing house she founded in 2015, Tilted Axis Press). For me, the most interesting detail that comes out of analysing this pie chart is the influence that one person or small publishing house can have on the representation of a language, country or region (and this may go some way to explaining the lack of books from Africa, but I need to think about that more closely). As for the publishing houses themselves, here’s how my 2018 reads were distributed:

And Other Stories and Portobello Books dominated, closely followed by Pereine Press and Tilted Axis Press, with good representation from Charco Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Oneworld Books and Pushkin Press. If I ever develop my technological skills, I’ll combine the language chart with the publishing house chart, and see where the overlaps are…

2019: the year after the Year of Publishing Women

2019 is set to be a fascinating year for women in translation: Kamila Shamsie suggested that, more than the Year of  Publishing Women itself, “the real question is what will happen in 2019?”, and one thing I’ll be working on this year is the legacy of the Year of Publishing Women. In more general reading terms, the difference with my literary resolution for 2019 is that this year I know more or less what I want to read: this year I am reading with more of an awareness of where the gaps are (in my own reading and in what’s available to me), as well as an increased knowledge of recent trends within the publishing industry. Whereas last year it was exciting to dive in and discover new releases and back catalogues, this year my excitement is coming from the knowledge of some of the things I can expect. There are a few books that were originally scheduled for release in 2018, but publication was pushed back until early 2019: Palestinian author Nayrouz Qarmout’s short story collection The Sea Cloak, translated by Perween Richards for Comma Press, will be published in February, and the Tilted Axis Translating Feminisms chapbooks, originally scheduled for release at the end of 2018, are now due early in 2019. So I’ve carried those books over from my 2018 plans to my 2019 list. Fitzcarraldo are publishing two women in translation in their Spring collection and at least one more later in the year; in the course of the year And Other Stories are publishing three women in translation, Charco are publishing four, Comma Press two (as well as Qarmout, look out for Sudanese author Rania Mamoun, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette – this will make an interesting case study after my comments about Africa), Les Fugitives six, OneWorld four, Parthian two, Peirene three, and Tilted Axis three (plus the chapbooks). That’s at least thirty new women in translation titles coming from UK independent publishing houses, and these are just the ones I know about.

So that’s my year’s reading pretty much planned out, with room for a few new discoveries or surprises, and keeping some space for books that aren’t women in translation (yes, I do occasionally read such things!) And while awaiting the first wave of new releases, I’m blasting into 2019 with these three that I just received from Foyles:

There are two from Granta’s now-shuttered imprint, Portobello Books: Mariana Enriquez’s short story collection Things We Lost in the Fire, translated by Megan McDowell, is simultaneously exciting and terrifying me, and I don’t think I can go far wrong with Visitation, another Jenny Erpenbeck novel with Susan Bernofsky translating. I also ordered After the Winter by Mexican author Guadelupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey: though Maclehose is too big a publisher to be featured in the main corpus of this project, sometimes there’s a book I just want to read anyway.

As I renew my commitment to reading women writers in translation, I’m going to end on this quotation from one of my favourite books of 2018, Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. In a magnificent translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones for Fitzcarraldo Editions, the narrator muses: “How wonderful – to translate from one language to another, and by so doing to bring people closer to one another – what a beautiful idea.” Happy New Year to all blog subscribers and visitors, and thank you for your support through another year of reading women in translation.

Women in translation: the best of 2018

End-of-year compilations are abundant at the moment, and after an exciting year – generally, with the Year of Publishing Women, and personally, with the development of this blog – I want to round off the year with my top picks and recommendations of 2018. I’m going to start by sharing my four Books of the Year as revealed in the interview I did with Sophie Baggott for Wales Arts Review, then talk about four more books that I’ve loved in 2018, before looking ahead to some exciting things coming our way in 2019.

Part 1: My top four

In order of publication date (to avoid any other form of “ranking”), here are my four favourite picks of 2018.

First up is Soviet Milk, the story of three generations of Latvian women based on author Nora Ikstena’s own life, published by Peirene Press. I mentioned in my review of Soviet Milk that it intertwines with my family history, and it’s fair to say that I read much of Soviet Milk through misty eyes. But Soviet Milk is heart-wrenching whether or not you have a personal connection to the history, and is a fine example of how literature can reveal the immeasurable consequences that historical tragedy can have on the life of the individual. The mother, always “striving to turn out her life’s light”, cannot accept the impact of Soviet rule on her homeland, and in rebelling against it condemns her daughter to relative exile, unable to give her maternal affection. It is the daughter – Ikstena herself – who offers this devotion back to her mother in a poignant tribute to a woman whose despair consumed her ability to love. The translation by Margita Gailitis strikes a perfect balance that rages and laments without ever descending into melodrama.

Don’t fall over with shock, but my next choice is Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup. I know, I’ve raved about it (repeatedly), but with good reason! This is not only an excellent collection of stories and novellas, but also the kind of writing that carries you back and forth between desperate wincing and uncontrollable giggles. It offers a snapshot of what the author describes as a “Latin American universe”, but also has a universality in terms of female experience, unromantic realities, adolescent frustration and the weight of tradition that will have broad appeal (particularly when recounted with such caustic humour, beautifully replicated in Charlotte Coombe’s glorious translation). You might have read about my meeting with Margarita, and I have to say that discovering Charco Press, reading Fish Soup, and interviewing Margarita are right up there in my 2018 highlights. Fish Soup is utterly brilliant and uncompromisingly hilarious, and I recommend it unreservedly.

After starting the year in relative obscurity in the English-speaking world, Olga Tokarczuk has become something of a household name for literature lovers. Although I enjoyed her Man Booker Prize-winning Flights, published last year by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Jennifer Croft’s translation, it was Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead that really stood out for me (you can read my full review here). Tackling issues of ageism, animal cruelty, environmental damage and individuality through the lens of a pseudo-noir murder mystery, this was an unexpected page-turner, offering plenty of insights into the human condition and several moments of sheer hilarity, all brought together in an immaculate translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (again for Fitzcarraldo). Drive Your Plow is a delight from beginning to end: it’s a tale of philosophy, astrology, fatality and retribution, all recounted by a unique, oddball and utterly brilliant narrator who will sweep you up into the banalities of her daily life and the enormities of the universe.

And finally, a book I have yet to review, though I have mentioned it in a previous post: The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán. If ever you should be disappointed that more publishers didn’t commit to the Year of Publishing Women, then just read this book and you’ll soon feel instead that a small take-up produced great things. The Remainder is a tumultuous riot of a road trip (in search of a dead body that’s gone missing in transit between Berlin and Santiago de Chile) that, in amongst a series of hilariously inappropriate events, tackles the serious issues of historical memory and the generational transmission of guilt. Three main characters struggle with the burden of their parents’ suffering, and bond over death, grief, and nicotine. Throw in a rickety hearse, winding mountain roads, and more than a few bottles of pisco, and it’s a literary treat. The translation by Sophie Hughes is pitch-perfect.

Part 2: another four brilliant books

There have been several other releases that I’ve greatly enjoyed this year. Since And Other Stories were publishing only women this year, the odds were high that I’d find a few I liked, and though The Remainder was the one I loved most, I have to mention two others that I’d highly recommend. Firstly, Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, which experiments with genre and drifts between the microscopic detail of individual life and the immensity of polar expeditions, framing everything within an ice metaphor which might seem improbable but which Kopf pulls off deftly. Living with an autistic brother (“a man of ice”) and negotiating relationships in the modern world don’t seem like obvious counterfoils for discussions of polar explorations, but it works brilliantly. Brother in Ice started out as an exhibition, and it is a startlingly luminous multi-genre work of art. I found the translation overly literal in several places, and although this did not prevent me from enjoying Kopf’s daring, creative debut, I’d like to read her own translation into Spanish at some point.

My surprise end-of-year highlight was, undoubtedly, Tentacle, by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas. In a mid 21st-century dystopian Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life. Maid Acilde inadvertently holds the key to future survival, but first must become a man (with the help of a sacred anemone) and travel in time to save her home. Tentacle is explosive, innovative, steeped in history but defying tradition, a social comment that never feels moralistic: it encompasses religion and voodoo, male and female, past and present (and future, while we’re at it), is a written text with oral qualities, beautifully constructed while seeming effortlessly spontaneous… put simply, it’s a psychedelic Caribbean genesis story with ecocriticism, voodoo and time travel thrown in – what’s not to love?!

Regular readers will also know how much I enjoyed the final release of the year from Tilted Axis Press, Hwang Jungeun’s I’ll Go On, beautifully and sensitively translated by Emily Yae Won. Two sisters and the boy next door take turns to narrate their childhood and adult life: they thrash out their relationships with each other, their mothers, and themselves, doomed to never truly understand one another yet committed to negotiating life together. In a world where notions of family are becoming more fluid, this quietly profound novel examines the bonds we choose, and those we cannot shake off, and offers reflections that transcend the context of the novel and become something akin to life mottos. One such favourite of mine is this: “The things we can’t seem to figure out no matter how much we think about and how deeply we look into them – maybe these things simply aren’t meant to be figured out, they’re not meant to be known” – read the last lines of my full review to see another that you’ll want to shout out loud to everyone you meet.

I’m still sad that Granta Books is shuttering its Portobello imprint next year, but Portobello have certainly gone out on a high: the smash hit of the summer (and Foyles Book of the Year) was Convenience Store Woman, and if ever you should judge a book by its cover, this would be the one, because it’s a perfect reflection of its heroine: like misfit convenience store worker Keiko herself, the unremittingly cheerful exterior conceals a depth, nuance and everyday tragedy beneath the surface. Keiko is not like other people, but no matter how hard her family tries to “fix” her, she cannot be “cured” of her differences, acknowledging of her calling that “When I first started here, there was a detailed manual that taught me how to be a store worker, and I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside that manual”. Convenience Store Woman challenges us not to assume that “normal” means “better”: Sayaka Murata writes a complex, loveable heroine who cannot understand the world, and in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s excellent translation, Keiko endears herself to new audiences. Like Keiko, Convenience Store Woman is delightful, original, and impossible to put into a box.

Part 3: women in translation in 2019

Finally, instead of choosing another two books and making this a “top ten”, I thought I’d share what I’m looking forward to for 2019.

And Other Stories will continue to bring us excellent women’s writing next year, with three women in translation titles, of which these two appeal to me greatly: To Leave with the Reindeer by Olivia Rosenthal, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis, is “the account of a woman who has been trained for a life she cannot live”, and The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel, represents a “fiercely witty and nuanced contribution to feminism in the #metoo era.”

Charco Press have a bumper year coming up, with new releases from Ariana Harwicz (whose Die, My Love was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize)  and Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (if you’ve seen my virtual bookshelf, you’ll know that Slum Virgin is one of my “must-read” recommendations, so a new Cabezón Cámara translation is cause for much rejoicing here!) as well as a “Proustian love story” by Brenda Lozano, and debut novels by Selva Almada and Andrea Jeftanovic.

Peirene Press are publishing only women authors in 2019 in a series called “There Be Monsters”.

As well as the much-anticipated release of their Translating Feminisms chapbooks, Tilted Axis will be kicking off 2019 with Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles.

Les Fugitives have a very exciting catalogue for 2019, with six new releases scheduled.

To conclude my year’s musings, I want to end with this beautiful reflection from an earlier Les Fugitives publication, Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance, translated with great warmth by Ros Schwartz:

“In these times of solitude and solidarities: translation, a hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge.”

Thank you for reading with me in 2018; I wish you all a restful and joyful festive season, and I’ll be back in January with more women in translation reviews and reflections.

A profound, lyrical incantation: Hwang Jungeun, I’ll Go On

Translated from the Korean by Emily Yae Won (Tilted Axis Press, 2018)

I’ll Go On was the final 2018 release in my Tilted Axis subscription, and I’d been eagerly awaiting it all year. It is the story of sisters Sora and Nana and their family bonds: with their damaged mother, Aeja, who was once brimming with love but has now given herself over to grief, with the enigmatic yet tender boy next door, Naghi Oraboni, and with Naghi’s mother, who fed and sustained Sora and Nana through their childhood. The original title, Soranananaghi, binds the three main protagnists’ names together in an incantation, also incorporating the word ‘sonagi’ (meaning ‘downpour’), and both of these meanings are echoed one drunken evening in three drops of water that Naghi names as Sora, Nana and Naghi, and that join together to make one single body of water. The English title is brilliantly chosen, as it is a phrase repeated like a refrain throughout the book: “I’ll go on” is the epitome of the characters’ determination to live out their lives, resigned to not feeling happy. This is far from being the only example of Emily Yae Won’s deftness in the translation: there are many references to the characters that make up the Korean names, and her incorporation of these never feels heavy-handed or “textbook-like”. I always find it hard to imagine the translation process from a language I know nothing of and a culture I know little about, but this translation seemed to me to keep all the cultural importance of the original, and some of the linguistic features, while still ensuring it was a smooth read in English.

Image from tiltedaxispress.com

I’ll Go On is narrated in four parts: Sora, Nana and Naghi all take their turns narrating, and then Nana takes over again for the short final section. I have come to greatly enjoy stories with multiple narrators, and one of the things I like about this technique is exemplified brilliantly in I’ll Go On: viewing the same event from different perspectives. The meeting of Sora, Nana and Naghi as children is recounted by both Sora and Naghi, likewise the revelation that “single-member tribes do exist in the world, you know”; an incident when Naghi strikes Nana to remind her that “forgetting, that’s how people turn monstruous. It’s how you become oblivious to other people’s pain” is remembered by both Nana and Naghi, and tense conversations between Sora and Nana are related by both sisters.

At the heart of the story is Nana’s pregnancy: Sora, the older sister, has always looked after Nana, and now feels that Nana has betrayed her, bringing another life into their family unit. Sora resents the pregnancy but tries to be kind; Nana resents Sora for trying to be kind. Sora’s only concept of motherhood is painful: she addresses Nana in her internal monologue with the musing:

“Has Nana set her heart on becoming a replica of Aeja?
Is that it, Nana.
You want to be another Aeja?
Fall in love like she did, and make a baby, and then have the baby, all so you can turn into an overbearing mother?”

As for Nana herself, she struggles with her (lack of) emotions towards the baby growing in her womb: she likes the father well enough, but does not want to marry him, and does not want to form an attachment to her child:

“When it comes to love, that seems about the right amount of emotional involvement: to be able to soon get back on your feet no matter what occurs. Where whether by mutual agreement of by one-sided betrayal or because one of you vanishes into thin air overnight, the other can manage to say, in due time: I’m fine. That seems about right. Even once the baby is here, Nana has decided that that will be the extent of her love for the child and for Moseh ssi.
Pouring all your heart into love as Aeja had done – that level of devotion is what Nana wants to guard against.”

Love is an emotion that can turn sour, that can become overwhelming grief, that can leave you a husk, and neither Sora nor Nana want this kind of love to befall them. They prefer recognisable parameters: companionship, shared memories, walls around the heart. And yet, it is in her attitude towards her unborn child that Nana realises with horror how like her own grief-hardened mother she is becoming: “It dawned on her that having been so intent on her own pain, it hadn’t occurred to her to consider the unequivocal anguish now presented before her. And that this made hers the closest likeness to that heart which Nana wholly detested, namely, Aeja’s heart.” The selfishness of Aeja’s pain, the way in which it closed her off to the pain of others, including her own children, is replicated in Nana – and yet this is not portrayed in some moralistic, daughter-understanding-the-mother way, but rather to show the terror of a child whose mother would prefer to leave the world than care for her, on realising that she too has allowed herself to become so consumed by pain that she cannot see the pain she is inflicting on others. And so we see a cycle: of life, love, resentment, and of the ways in which all three main characters are trapped in a past they cannot set free. This is reflected in Aeja’s repeated questioning of Nana about her pregnancy: Aeja chants “Are you happy? Are you happy? Are you happy?” without waiting for an answer, and Nana listens to “the question that’s being repeated over and over like a curse.” Aeja’s lack of happiness in her own life did not prevent her from wanting happiness for her children, but she fails to see that it is her own behaviour that has wrung out all possibility for happiness from them.

The main emotional connection the three narrators share comes through food: they were all nourished through childhood on the food prepared by Naghi’s mother, Ajumoni, a hardworking widow whose only desire in life is to have a grandchild. Just as it was Ajumoni who fed Sora and Nana through their childhood (“They were the plainest of lunchboxes. Plain and commonplace. And yet to have contained so much in such a compact form is nothing short of immense”), so it was also Ajumoni who gave Sora and Nana the maternal love they lacked in their own home, and it is her food that sustains them even as adults, when they gather together to make dumplings, setting their differences aside as they work together to prepare a feast, the taste of which embodies for Nana “The longing, the delight, the tenderness, the fear, the loneliness, the regret, the joy – all muddled, all at once. All one big mess.” Ajumoni’s food defines both childhood and home for Sora and Nana, to the extent that “no matter what delectable and fine food they may come across now, anything that’s not of this home is simply – for Sora and Nana both – other, the taste of not-home.”

Hwang is adept at crafting profound philosophical reflections in the quietest of ways: the fleeting nature of human life within the vastness of history is made evident in the assertion that “the world’s end will only befall us gradually, and this will give Nana time to think properly about things”; the overwhelming nature of pain is given shape in Naghi’s description of Aeja’s widowhood, when he acknowledges that “over a lengthy stretch of time, she has steadily, inaudibly, fulfilled her pain and become whole. She has hauled her pain over herself, covering herself entirely with it, like a carapace”; the physical depth of love is evident in Naghi’s claim that “This sensory memory is a yearning, and will never be erased. If it is to be rubbed out, it will be the last memory to go, It will leave me only in my final moment”, and perhaps Hwang’s characters are best defined by Nana’s conclusion about human life: “People are trifling, their lives meagre and fleeting. But this, Nana thinks, is also what makes them loveable”. These are some of my favourite lines from the novel, and show the lyrical beauty to be found within it. What could be a fairly depressing story is raised to a thing of crystalline incandescence because of the sensitivity and humanity with which both author and translator craft this work.

The line that most struck me and lingered on in my memory is one that I wish I could shout out to everyone I pass, to those who are close to me and those who are not, to friends and foes, to world leaders, the people who vote for them, and the people who oppose them. And I’m going to leave this line as the last word, in the spirit of the #WiTWisdom pledge that I mentioned last week: “Don’t erase things from the world just because you are incapable of imagining them.”